Why don’t the French get as fat as Americans, considering all the baguettes, wine, cheese, pate and pastries they eat? Because they use internal cues — such as no longer feeling hungry — to stop eating, reports a new Cornell study. Americans, on the other hand, tend to use external cues — such as whether their plate is clean, they have run out of their beverage or the TV show they’re watching is over.
This is not just a French vs. American issue, however. I see this as a general difference between individuals.
The traditional breakfast of a Norwegian is a couple of slices of bread topped with only one slice of cold cut or a spread of jam or a slice of cheese. That is generally also the traditional lunch. The Norwegians used to be poor, which is reflected in their spartan open-faced sandwiches. (In spite of introducing “real” sandwiches – and affluence – to the Norwegians, when they make one themselves, they always skimp on the ingredients.) One of the joys of staying at a hotel for Norwegians is the access to a wide variety of breads, spreads and hot dishes at the breakfast and lunch buffets, included in the price. One of the common complaints of Norwegians staying in hotels is that they always overeat. “Too much good food. Can’t say no,” they say.
That always strikes me as odd, because I can and do say “no”. I pick my favorites or pick foods I’d never eat at home and want to try and I eat no more for breakfast or lunch at a hotel than I would at home. I must be French: I can listen to my own stomach, and so my eyes and tongue may suggest what to eat, but how much is decided below my rib cage.
Most of us grow up or end up with eating habits that are dictated by outside influences: The clock, someone else’s hunger, someone else’s cooking, the routines for dining, even TV ads for food.
In my family, we generally ate around 6 pm. If the TV was on, it was turned off. We ate at the dining table because that’s where we had enough room for three. We all ate the same thing, and as I was told if I complained, some nights it’s my favorite dish, other nights it’s someone else’s. So I got used to eating a variety of food. And we conversed at the dinner table. No “How was your day” sort of thing because we’d had that discussion earlier, but general stuff. I’d often do most of the talking. I’m always talking. If I’m not, you know I’m either sleeping, deep in concentration, or sick. Talking while eating naturally paces the eating. And that meant I felt full before I’d eaten everything on my plate. My family knew they weren’t going to send my leftovers to starving kids abroad somewhere, so they encouraged me to eat as much as I could, but never forced me or made me feel guilty. Another habit we didn’t have was rewarding good behavior (or broken hearts) with food. We didn’t have a dish of snacks constantly sitting on the coffee table.
These sane eating habits were courtesy of Grandma who passed them on to both my mother and myself. Grandma had little control over her appetite, having had it destroyed by well-meaning parents who felt their daughter was way too skinny (Grandma ended up very fat as an adult). My own awareness of the sensation of food in my stomach – and an experience of what happens when I ignore it (I gained weight quickly) – has left me respecting my stomach and never wanting to stretch it.
Because society dictates when to eat, because most of us want dessert too, because we all eat more when we’re in the company of other people (says other research), we tend to eat more than we actually need, and at times when we aren’t actually hungry. We glance at the clock to know if it’s time to eat; we don’t wait for a certain empty feeling in our stomach. Sometimes we can’t wait; it’s the designated lunch hour. Other things can make a person eat too fast and so lose that time it takes for the stomach to get a message to the brain that food has arrived (I’m told it takes 20 minutes). Some of my co-workers, due to the fact that Norwegian lunches are only 30 minutes, will wolf down their food in 20 and spend the last 10 having a smoke. It has never struck me as a relaxing way to eat. I still try to eat slowly, using the whole half hour (I have noticed that I’ve sped up in recent years, though). Relaxing at the dining table is another eating habit I got from childhood; I want to focus on the food, on the eating. If it’s time to eat, eat. Have the (tickle) fight afterwards.
I know “they” tell you to snack in between meals if you want to lose weight. Never let more than 3 hours pass between eating something “they” say. I can’t do that. If I’m not hungry, I’m not hungry. When I am hungry, however, I want to eat as soon as possible. Which means I should have something healthy waiting for me. Last night, I made up a batch of chili while a store-bought frozen pizza was cooking in the oven. I want to kill the growing habit of detouring through our local McDonald’s every time I felt too tired to cook, so inspired by this article, I planned ahead for a week so that I could always find something in my fridge or freezer that would be quick and easy to make for when I get home from work.
I used to cook on Friday evenings. I used to thumb through my cookbooks, find something interesting to try and then I’d spend Friday evening enjoying my own kitchen and my own cooking and new discoveries in food. It’s a habit I’ve fallen out of, but having an easy meal to go (the pizza) yesterday evening, coupled with an easy dish to make (the chili con carne), was encouraging and wonderfully meditative. The chili got to cook a while, then cool a while, while I vegged with my pizza in front of the TV. Yes, I do that. (I did, however, leave a slice of pizza, even though my show wasn’t over.) It’s either that or read at the table (or eat at the computer). First let me get my cooking habits back. Then we’ll see about my eating habits. Good as they were, I have let them slide. I think that is probably what happens to most of us. We forget that nourishing ourselves properly is a way to love ourselves.
 I wrote “most of us” because I actually don’t find dessert all that important (or tasty; I was raised with disappointing desserts like ice cream, jello and fruit cocktail). I do sometimes finish off a dinner at home with a couple of pieces of milk chocolate. Yes, you read that right: A couple of pieces. Chocolate has enough “heft” to satisfy with little.
 In the questionnaire for the metabolic typing diet, the assumption was made that everyone likes ice cream. I can happily do without; I haven’t had any in my freezer since the 80’s, when I was expecting company. Ice cream is in my category of foods labelled “It depends”.